by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The heat and humidity that has made this a longer and hotter summer than we’re used to has somewhat lessened, but today’s Curious Cases presentation was all about hot tempers and packing heat as about 65 visitors attended the talk on the King family of El Monte and their use of “personal justice” during the turbulent decade of 1855 to 1865.
Based on research I did in graduate school and in preparation for a book that has gone unfinished, Curious Cases has included fifteen talks on various cases and elements of criminal justice in greater Los Angeles from 1850 to 1875, with one more to go before the series concludes in late October with a final presentation on local judges.
This afternoon’s PowerPoint-illustrated lecture looked at the family of Samuel and Martha King, which included the brothers Frank Marion, Andrew Jackson, and Samuel Houston (had to include those full names of the latter two for their very “Southern” character.) Samuel, Sr., born in southern Virginia in 1806, headed, as many did, through the Cumberland Gap to Tennessee, where he married Martha Mee, a native of the Chattanooga area.
The Kings then migrated over the southern border to Georgia, living in Lumpkin County, in the heart of Cherokee country at the time of the horrors of the Trail of Tears when those natives were forced west to what became Oklahoma. The family then went to northeastern Arkansas, not far from Memphis, and were there when news of the California Gold Rush arrived.
The family headed west and was in Santa Fe, New Mexico for the 1850 census. Two years later, they joined a caravan of migrants on the southern route to California, which led them to the San Gabriel Valley. On the banks of the San Gabriel River, this being the modern Rio Hondo, and within the Rancho San Francisquito, owned by Henry Dalton, they settled in a community named Lexington, soon part of the broader settlement of El Monte.
Later in 1852, Micajah Johnson and his family arrived in the area. Johnson, like Martha King, hailed from Tennessee, but was in eastern Illinois when he married Ohio-born Susannah Allgood. The couple had five daughters and lived in Indiana and Arkansas before moving to Texas, not far from Austin. From there, they traveled west and ended up in the El Monte area, though Susannah died en route.
Both families had early connections to the Workman and Temple families. One of the King sons worked for the two families at their ranchos near El Monte, while Micajah was, for a time, the foreman of William Workman’s vast half portion of Rancho La Puente. At some point, however, tensions arose between Johnson and Samuel King.
Meanwhile, in late 1854, there was a crime wave of note, even for crime-ridden Los Angeles, including a string of murders that put the town and surrounding areas even further on edge than was often the case at the time. Felipe Alvitre, from a long-standing family residing south of El Monte and very near the home of Antonia Margarita Workman and F.P.F. Temple, killed El Monte resident James Ellington. Shortly afterward, known criminal David Brown murdered Pinckney Clifford in a Los Angeles livery stable. Then, Johnson’s son-in-law, William B. Lee, also of El Monte, got into a boundary dispute with a neighbor which led to Lee killing a man the neighbor sent to argue over the problem.
Community sentiment agitated explicitly for the conviction and execution of the trio, an attitude openly agreed to and shared by the two newspapers in Los Angeles, the Star and the Southern Californian, which also supported “popular justice” by the community if the courts failed to secure the conviction of the prisoners. Predictably, this was the outcome for Alvitre, Brown and Lee, but the California Supreme Court, citing the poisoned atmosphere for a fair and impartial trial, issued stays of execution for the latter two, while Alvitre’s petition was sent to the governor, not the court, and was delayed. So, he was readied for his execution on 11 January 1855.
Four days prior, on the 7th, Johnson was in an El Monte bar when he spotted one of the King brothers, probably the youngest, Houston, and showered him with choice epithets and other forms of verbal abuse. Houston returned home and informed his father of Johnson’s treatment and the elder King, accompanied by his sons, confronted his adversary. One newspaper account stated that, in this situation, it was King who fired a gun at Johnson first, knocking him from his startled house (another account suggests he was wounded) and the latter ran to a nearby house.
There, Johnson pulled his weapon and fired at King, hitting him in the lungs just above the heart and delivering a mortal wound from which King died the following day. As he fell, however, King implored his three sons to avenge his death. The accounts vary, but it was suggested that Johnson was chased to another building where he was either badly beaten and shot by all three King boys or shot to death by one of them. Whatever the case, the Kings avenged themselves and the Grand Jury declined to bring an indictment in the matter.
This was despite the fact that it seemed clear that King fired upon Johnson first before the latter returned with the volley that killed the former. Notably, the Star presented its version in a way that reads as less one-sided, while the Southern Californian, though agreeing that King fired his weapon first, added that Johnson was “a notorious character” who “took occasion to publicly assail the character and reputation” of the Kings “in the most outrageous and obscene language,” while Samuel King was “a very estimable citizen.”
It was the Star which reported (“as far as we can learn,” it added as a caveat) that, after King fell mortally injured, his sons went after Johnson and he was “knocked down and severely beaten” and then “shot him down” with four bullets taking effect, the fatal wounds being in the head and side. The three brothers then turned themselves in to authorities.
The Southern Californian, on the other hand, stated that, once Samuel King hit the ground upon being shot by Johnson, the King boys immediately fired at Johnson, with one shot hitting him in the back, upon which the wounded man fled to another building. Returning to their stricken father, the Kings then were commanded to revenge him. This report went on that, “one of the boys rushed to the house where Johnson had taken refuge and shot him dead.” As the Star did, the Southern Californian added that this information was “as we can hastily obtain it.”
Yet, while the former paper ended its account with “we forbear dwelling on this painful occurrence, as doubtless there will be legal proceedings instituted,” its contemporary took another route:
Thus has the lives of two citizens been sacrificed and their families left to mourn their untimely bereavement, directly consequent upon the reckless use of a slanderous tongue and a criminal disregard of the feelings of others . . . never can we condemn the motives that prompted the terrible punishment that so swiftly overtook Johnson. And we cannot believe that there can be a jury found in this section of the county who would take any other view of the subject.
This is a patently clear opinion that Johnson was really to blame for the incident by his “slanderous tongue” and “criminal disregard” for Houston King’s feelings, while Samuel King’s instigation of direct violence appeared to the paper to be fully justified. As to why the grand jury declined to file an indictment, noting is left to us about this, though the Southern Californian’s sentiment might very well have been shared by jury members.
Many of these local residents likely had much sympathy for or readily subscribed to notions of “Southern chivalry” among men, allowing for personal justice to be a substitute for the legally constituted criminal justice system. So, with Johnson’s affront to the honor of the King family, especially its men, it was perfectly reasonable and legitimate for the Kings to revenge themselves upon Johnson, even to the point of equating verbal assault with a physical attack.
As we’ll see in tomorrow’s post, much of this attitude may well have continued to be present a decade later, when the three King boys were back in mortal combat with another Southern foe. Check back for part two of this post to find out more!